Building Bridges: Role of Governments

Ed Vaizey’s Speech at the UN Internet Governance Forum, Nua Dusa, Indonesia 22 October 2013.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Ed Vaizey

I appreciate very much the Government of Brazil leading this important discussion at the IGF this morning – and many thanks to the organisers for inviting me to join the panel and allowing me an opportunity to explain the UK Government’s perspective on this important theme.

We were very interested when Brazil proposed a formal ITU Opinion on the role of governments at the World Telecommunication Policy Forum in Geneva in May. It made us all sit back and think – well, what is our role exactly?

The roles of governments in Internet governance have not always been as clearly defined as the roles of other stakeholders. This is perhaps partly because of the wide scope of government activity and law making. Nearly all public policy issues, like many other aspects of life, have been affected in some way by the development of the Internet.

There are very obvious and well-established, usually law-based policy areas relating to the Internet where governments play a major role – for example addressing copyright infringement, ensuring consumer protection and action to stop child abuse images. In pursuing these aims, Governments have a responsibility to work together through organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, the World Intellectual Property Organisation, Interpol and others in order to help tackle illegal activity online. Government intervention is not the same as government control. Often the most effective approach for governments is to promote effective self-regulation which is more flexible - or to set a framework within which other stakeholders can operate. Governments also participate actively in multi-stakeholder processes to ensure that the public interest is promoted – such as in the Governmental Advisory Committee of ICANN with regard to the management of the domain name system. For this reason Governments do need to be involved in any forum which is considering Internet public policy issues pertaining to the Internet.

At the time of the WTPF back in May, we decided to pull all this experience together to try to define more precisely our role as a government is in the context of the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance. The first thing we did was to consult our multi-stakeholder advisory group which we had set up exactly for this kind of purpose – to consult representatives in the UK from the private sector, civil society, academia and the technical community on any public policy issues pertaining to the Internet so that we could tap into the full range of expertise in the Internet eco-system. After a couple of brainstorming sessions, we came to the conclusion that the role of governments falls into four broad categories.

Firstly, governments have a vital role to play through empowering users of the Internet users by promoting and safeguarding freedom of expression, cultural diversity, gender equality, information, education and skills. Secondly, Governments also have a duty to ensure that domestic legal frameworks are fair and consistent by ensuring transparency of legal process and accountability for government decisions and that the law applies equally online as it does offline. Governments must also ensure that there is provision of equitable civil processes for dispute resolution so that our citizens can enjoy due legal process and can enforce their rights.

Thirdly, Governments have a role to play in establishing and promoting a robust global Internet infrastructure that provides equitable access for all our citizens. For example, increasing access to high speed broadband at affordable prices is often a policy priority for promoting economic development and job creation - and to allow more people to enjoy a better quality of life. Governments need to work with the private sector to foster a stable environment for investment in Internet infrastructure, ensuring there are open and competitive markets which encourage new entrants and promote sustained investment.

This is a crucial issue for developing countries and small island states which are often constrained by limited resources, poor infrastructure and a low skills base. Governments have a key role in supporting capacity building and strategies for attracting investment that will foster sustainable development, new economic opportunities and growth.

Finally, Governments can contribute to the development of multi-stakeholder processes and partnerships such as this very forum. They can do this most obviously by providing funding for the support mechanisms that need resourcing, as the UK has done for the IGF through the UN Trust Fund.

But we can also facilitate and contribute our expertise in the development of inclusive and transparent governance processes and generally promote the right of all stakeholders to participate. We can do this not only through awareness campaigns and active support for national and regional initiatives relating to the Internet but also by setting an example through conducting open and effective engagement and interaction with stakeholders as an inherent part of our policy development processes.

As members, Governments also have a crucial role in helping to transform existing inter-governmental organisations to become more inclusive, transparent and collaborative. By opening up their policy development processes to participation by businesses and civil society, these important bodies with their specific mandates will foster international cooperation and best practice and capacity building in developing countries and small island states.

We intend to set out our thinking on all these roles and areas of activity for governments in a paper which we will present to the ITU’s Council Working Group on the Internet next month. But I hope I have given you a sense of our thinking on where specifically Governments do have important roles to play in the development of the global knowledge economy for all our citizens.

Thank you, Chair.

Published 22 October 2013